In our last article we emphasized that the deacon’s office, apart from the question whether or not Acts 6records its historical origin, is divinely instituted and has the sanction of the Word of God. Christ will have deacons in His church as well as elders and ministers of the Word. The church that has no diaconate, or where the diaconate fails to function according to the mandate and calling of God’s Word, suffers a very serious lack of something that is essential to her existence. The church cannot completely consummate her calling without the labor of the deacons.
It is important that the members of the church understand this. One is easily left with the impression that office-bearers and members alike in our days think of deacons merely as some sort of financial agents of the church. They are to gather the funds, chief of which in the minds of many are the budget contributions for the running expenses of the church. Of these funds they are the custodians, and it often seems that their responsibility ceases with their maintaining the general fund of the church in good order. Others tend to regard the deacons as some kind of assistants to the ministers and elders. This is especially true in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches where deacons do not engage in the work of mercy but rather, as assistants to the clergy, are called to exercise themselves in various details pertaining to the worship. To the deacons are assigned all kinds of menial tasks, with the result that their unique calling is either obscured or forgotten.
Reformed churches are not entirely free from this tragic error. Although at the time of the 16th century reformation and for some time after it was the Reformed churches that seemed to grasp the necessity and importance of restoring all the offices of the church to their rightful dignity according to the Word of God, the offices were not always properly maintained. Calvin stressed the ministry of mercy as an integral part of the life of the Christian church. He claimed to find warrant for two types of deacons; those who devoted themselves exclusively to the care of the poor and those who ministered to the sick. That much emphasis was laid on the latter is understandable, when we remember the comparatively poor medical facilities which obtained not only in Geneva but throughout Europe in his day. If deacons did not minister to the sick and the dying, they were often forgotten entirely.
For a long time the diaconal office was held in high honor in all the French and Dutch Calvinistic churches. It is said that as late as the eighteenth century a Lutheran pastor, visiting in the Netherlands, expressed his amazement at and appreciation for what the Reformed churches did through their diaconates for the alleviation of the poor — something which he could find nowhere in his own church. Deterioration, however, has crept in from time to time. Many diaconates seemingly are more interested in maintaining sizable endowments than in helping the distressed. And not infrequently where the poor are helped, it is done in an offensive way. There is abundant room to review the functions of this office carefully and the time is now to make the necessary amends.
The times in which we live are marked by unprecedented material prosperity and the number of needy has in consequence been reduced. Besides, unemployment and medical insurance, together with old-age pensions and a variety of retirement plans for the average laborer, have become the order of the day. The chief purpose of the diaconate is forgotten and in many instances where there is evidence of need, aid by the deacons is even scorned. This is a most unhappy circumstance. Apart from the question of where the blame for all this must be placed, it is time that the church confronts the reality and takes positive steps to renovate the diaconate. Even though there may be no real needy in a certain congregation for a time, the ministry of mercy must go on. Such a church has a God-given duty to assist sister-congregations where many may be feeling the pinch of poverty. Reports of situations of dire need throughout the church and world should not leave the hearts of those called to minister Christ’s mercy cold and indifferent, but should stir the hearts of both deacons and congregations to bring liberal alms. When there was ‘no need’ in Galatia, Macedonia, and Corinth, these churches were expressly commanded by God through Paul to bring their gifts for the saints in Judea. The principle of this action remains unchanged to the present time and any church that flouts this principle will suffer tragic spiritual repercussions.
If then the diaconate is to be maintained according to the ordinances of God’s Word, we must emphasize first of all the care of the needy. Then we show that we truly believe the Savior’s word that we have them always with us. This emphasis, then, is also the central point of significance in the description of the office of deacons as found in our installation form. This form speaks of the office as consisting of two functions. We quote:
…that they in the first place collect and preserve with the greatest fidelity and diligence, the alms and goods which are given to the poor; yea, to do their utmost endeavors, that many good means be procured for the relief of the poor…
The second part of their office consists in distribution, wherein are not only required discretion and prudence to bestow the alms only on objects of charity, but also cheerfulness and simplicity to assist the poor with compassion and hearty affection; as the apostle requires, Romans, Chapter 12; and II Corinthians, Chapter 9. From which end it is very beneficial, that they do not only administer relief to the poor and indigent with external gifts, but also with comfortable words from Scripture.
We note here that the installation form says nothing about the deacons collecting monies for the general operation of the church. In every church these matters are entrusted to the care of the deacons. We are not now objecting to this practice, but we are pointing out that this work is not the essence of their office. When the deacons of a church do this and only this, they are not fulfilling the responsibilities of the office to which Christ calls them. Until this is understood, there is little, if any, hope or possibility of restoring the office of the diaconate to its proper place in the church. Deacons are ministers of mercy, and with the work of mercy they must be primarily concerned. Their specific work is to collect alms and properly to distribute these alms to the needy.
That this is not always done is not to be blamed on the deacons alone. The deterioration of this office is properly the responsibility of the entire congregation. And although there are undoubtedly many things that contribute to this, we will single out especially two important factors in this article. In the first place, if the office of mercy is to function in the church, she must live in the conscious awareness of her spiritual unity. The confession, “I believe one holy catholic church”, must be more than empty words. This statement, uttered by believers throughout the centuries, must remind US of our basic spiritual unity in Christ Jesus. The church does not consist of a certain number of people, each living his own little life of comparative isolation and unconcern for others. Individualism in the church of Christ stands condemned. God’s people are one family, brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ. When, therefore, one member rejoices, there is occasion for the whole family to be glad; and like likewise when one member suffers or is in want, the whole body of saints should grieve with him. The spirit of looking after, not the things of self, but the things of others must prevail in the communion of the saints. (Phil. 2) Without it the practice of Christian mercy becomes obsolete.
Now this unity can be and is expressed in various ways with which we are not at present concerned. Our purpose here is to point out that the spiritual unity of the church is expressed in her offerings for charity. Alms-giving is an integral and essential part of worship and without this the diaconate cannot properly function. The church must, then, in the second place, understand the meaning of charity and must restore to its rightful place, the spiritual practice of almsgiving.
Can the claim that also in our churches there is room for improvement be disputed? Some tend to look at the worship service on Sunday as merely a preaching service. Now we do not minimize the importance of the preaching in worship, but we must insist that worship consists of the bringing of praise and homage to the Lord as well as hearing what He has to say to us through His Spirit and Word. These two aspects of worship must be kept in proper balance.
Others consider the limitation of responsibility of giving to the Lord’s cause the paying of the weekly budget. Again it may be said that certainly it is important that the needs for the upkeep and maintenance of the church be met; but this must not overshadow and obscure the important responsibility of giving alms. Likewise it must be remembered that paying one’s budget and even contributing to missions, Christian education and other special causes is not an alms. Alms-giving is an essential part of worship and without it the diaconate simply cannot function.
In many churches the offering for benevolence is no longer held in the high esteem which once characterized it. Indications are that in some instances these offerings are received only once a month, and it is said that there have been churches in the past in which it was customary to receive an offering for the poor only at the time of the Lord’s Supper. When these practices are questioned, the answer is generally that offerings for these causes are no longer needed because the congregation has no poor.
Although our Church Order nowhere explicitly demands the receiving of an offering for benevolence each Lord’s Day, the importance of the matters cannot be questioned. The deacons are required to care for the poor, and to do this they must be provided with means. Inquiry is made into this matter at each meeting of Classis as well as at the time of Church Visitation. But most important of all, the answer given to the question concerning the fourth commandment in Lord’s Day XXXVIII of our Heidelberg Catechism indicates plainly that at least one offering each Lord’s Day for benevolence is required by our Reformed religion. Concerning the observance of the Sabbath the Catechism states:
First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, diligently attend the church of God, to learn God’s Word, to use the sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.” (Italics mine)
Is there then not something lacking in the worship that fails to provide the opportunity to fulfill this important part of our religion? Must not the church restore the offering for charity to its rightful place in our services? Alms must be provided so that the diaconates can properly function. However, this raises one important question. What about the church that is itself the object of charity, unable to provide its own essentials? Must not charity begin at home? Is it the obligation of such needy churches to use their own benevolence first; to take more offerings for the poor which then would be used for self-support instead of being subsidized denominationally? Can a church that is not self-supporting really exercise benevolence outside of her own sphere? And, if not, what is the function of the diaconate in such churches?